Jesus reacted to the criticism of not observing ritual washing prior to eating that was leveled at him from the Pharisees and scribes by recalling the tradition of the Prophets through the words of Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mk 7:6). For Jesus, following the law for the law’s sake is an empty act. What is important is encountering God, experiencing his love and forgiveness, developing a relationship with him, being transformed by him, and restoring what has been lost of being created in his image and likeness, so as to be able to glorify him by serving others and inviting others into communion with him. Jesus challenged the hyper scrupulosity and exactitude of the rules that had nothing to do with being humble servants of God.
Just laws and practices are those that are enacted to build up and empower ourselves and others through discipline and clear boundaries. They help keep us from being enslaved to our passions and sins and instead lead us to freedom for excellence, for fulfillment, and to experience a heart on fire with an ever-growing love that yearns for a relationship with God and each other, like a deer for running streams.
As with any game we play, there are rules and regulations, there are referees and officials to keep order. When the rules enforced encroach on the flow of the game, such that they inhibit the freedom of play, the game is stunted. When there is no enforcement, the game quickly devolves into chaos. When the rules are consistent, they provide the structure and boundaries that limit abuse, allow for the game to flourish, and the players to experience the freedom to actualize their potential, and as such, there is the experience of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
The first time I saw people skate, I was enraptured. I think I was seven. My father was working on a project at our local ice rink and even though we were not there to skate, I refused to leave until he took me on the ice. It didn’t matter that the only skates to rent that fit my feet were figure skates. It didn’t matter that my first attempt was a dismal failure. What mattered was that I made it to the ice and the joy of that experience carried me as I learned the rules of balance, how to stop and what a toe kick was and was not for. Soon I had the freedom not only to skate but to join a hockey team. The freedom and joy I felt any time I skated or played hockey, I still carry with me to this day.
The Church, when we are at our best, is the same. We don’t lead with the rules and moralizing, but instead, we share our time, presence, and the joy of our faith. We empower and support one another as we enter into the play between our finite freedom and God’s infinite freedom. We are built for a relationship with God and one another and as our relationship matures, we start to learn and share the finer points of our life of faith. We experience the meaning of why we do what we do and why certain thought patterns and actions lead us either away from or closer to God. There is a unique balance between the rules and the freedom of play.
Loving someone does not mean we allow them to do whatever they want, but in willing their good, we offer invitations, options, and establish boundaries that will provide opportunities for growth, maturity, and authentic freedom. We are going to make mistakes, I have made plenty. The key is recognizing that we are on a journey together. As we walk together, we support and learn from one another. In this way, the boundaries and rules we follow are meant to set a foundation for healthy relationships and actualizing who God invites us to be; joyful, human beings that are fully alive!
Photo: About eight or nine, living the dream on the ice! I still have my hockey skates. Still hoping to get back on the ice!